Ralph Waldo Emerson’s work on historical liberalism and energetic conservatism suggests that the modern self must only divest himself of the “dry bones” of history in order to tap into the pure primordial “powers” of nature and so renew the world. Yet, is it not our collective heritage, both the good and the bad, that embeds us in time, allowing us to enter into harmony with its rhythms and limitations?

Historical Liberalism and Energetic Conservatism

While it is perhaps somewhat contentious to claim Ralph Waldo Emerson as modernity’s “representative man,” there are ways in which it is wholly appropriate. If modernity represents a perceived rupture with the cultural forms of the past, then Emerson’s proposal to establish “an original relation to the universe,” is quintessentially modern.[1] Through it, Emerson affirms the arrow of time identified by Bruno Latour as the marker of modern temporality that irrevocably separates the old world from the new (or so moderns assume).

The claim that the bent of Emerson’s thought is historically liberal in character likely comes as no surprise. Neal Dolan has written an entire book on the subject, titled Emerson’s Liberalism (2009), that superbly sketches out the contours of Emerson’s liberal views. Less commented upon is the relationship between those views and a particular understanding of the natural world. For, while it is quite obvious that Emerson’s “original relation” involves the creation of new cultural forms, it also, as Dr. Dolan points out, involves acquiring the “knowledge of origins—of things as they were before they were distorted by custom and tradition, of things in the pure primordial state.”[2] This suggests that, while culture and history are subject to an arrow of time, nature is not. Thus, for Emerson, the possibility of historical abstraction depends on a state of nature that has remained unchanged from time immemorial. It is only by separating nature from culture in this way (another modern convention) that Emerson can be assured of a world that is as-good-as-new for the modern self.

Emerson was writing during a period in which the Newtonian view of a cosmos of perfectly balanced physical forces was being challenged by one based on the emerging thermodynamic conception of energetic dissipation. Sadi Carnot’s 1824 publication, “Reflections on the Motive Power of Heat,” revealed the impossibility of perpetual work in a heat engine by showing that all energetic transformations involve a quantity of lost heat. Throughout the 1850s and 60s, the Scottish physicist, William Thomson, published a series of papers applying Carnot’s axiom to the cosmos. Seminal works such as “On a Universal Tendency in Nature to the Dissipation of Mechanical Energy” (1852), “On the Mechanical Energies of the Solar System” (1854), and “On the Age of the Sun’s Heat” (1862), challenged the predominant view held by many geologists and biologists of the time that the world’s energies were balanced and ever renewable. This is the reason Darwin once referred to Thomson as an “odious spectre.”[3] For, prior to the discovery of nuclear energy in the early twentieth century, the deep time of geology and evolutionary biology was impossible to reconcile with the calculations physicists made of the available store of solar energy, on which the world relied, and its rate of dissipation. The laws of thermodynamics were finally formalized by Rudloph Clausius in 1865, stating that while (1) energy is conserved over time, (2) it is steadily dissipated into a useless form called entropy. This dissipation gave nature its direction in time.

Emerson’s natural philosophy affirms the first (energetic conservation), while, denying the second law of thermodynamics (energetic dissipation). Gay Wilson Allen has, in fact, argued that the principle of circularity as used by Emerson in such essays as “Circles” (1841) is a poetic translation of the principle of the “conservation of energy.”[4] What I call Emerson’s energetic conservatism is similar to that of thinkers such as Charles Lyell, who, in his seminal Principles of Geology (1830) argues that “if in any part of the globe the energy of a cause appears to have decreased, it is always probable, that the diminution of intensity in its action is merely local, and that its force is unimpaired, when the whole globe is considered.”[5] While Emerson was familiar with the work of Lyell, in holding to such a view he is not attempting to justify anything like geological deep time. Rather, for Emerson, energetic conservatism is the necessary obverse of historical liberalism. This connection can be seen quite plainly by looking more closely at the passage from “Nature” in which he evokes his idea of an “original relation”:

Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also [6]

While it is not stated explicitly, what Emerson means when he says “[t]he sun shines to-day also,” is that the sun shines now (in the nineteenth century) as it did then (at the dawn of the Western tradition). Thus, the modern self must only divest himself of the “dry bones” of history in order to tap into the pure primordial “powers” of nature and so renew the world. Ironically, it is a natural identity with the past that facilitates a radical cultural nonidentity.

“Nature” was published in 1836, so it is quite understandable that Emerson expressed views more in accordance with the cyclical universe of geologists like Lyell and James Hutton than the nascent thermodynamic view that would be popularized by Thomson in the coming decades. By 1862, however, when he gave a lecture at the Tremont Temple in Boston titled “Perpetual Forces,” the concept of universal energetic dissipation was widely known within the scientific world. In fact, by 1853, Thomson’s ideas appeared in Scientific American in an article titled “Heat of the Sun—Will it Ever Decay” which excerpted sections of a presidential address by William Hopkins to the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In the article Hopkins is quoted as stating, “Professor Thomson concludes that the dispersion of heat, and consequently of physical energy from the sun and stars into space, without any recognizable means of re-concentration, is the existing order of nature.”[7] Due to this, he continues, “the heat of the sun must ultimately be diminished, and the physical condition of the earth therefore altered.”[8] In “Perpetual Forces,” Emerson takes a very different view of the matter, one that would not so clearly deny him the “knowledge of origins” on which his cultural vision rests.

The epigraph poem of “Perpetual Forces,” presumably spoken by nature itself, states, “[n]o ray is dimmed, no atom worn, / My oldest force is good as new.”[9] This “good as new” is the key to Emerson’s hope of establishing an “original relation to the universe.” For if the forces of nature are dissipated and depleted from what they once were, one’s relation to the universe is necessarily derivative and thus historically limited. Emerson eschews this possibility at every chance, listing a series of physical forces, starting with the sun, that remain, in his day, as “good as new.” He writes, “[t]he sun has lost no beams, the earth no elements; gravity is as adhesive, heat as expansive, light as joyful, air as virtuous, water as medicinal as on the first day,” adding, “[t]here is no loss, only transference.”[10] Here he makes explicit what in “Nature” remains implicit, namely that the state of nature as encountered “to-day” is the same as it was on “the first day.” His claim regarding “transference” is a near perfect summation of the first law of thermodynamics. This point is reiterated by his claim that the physical forces of nature “have certain properties which adhere to them, such as conservation, persisting to be themselves, [the] impossibility of being warped.”[11] Yet, while energy is conserved, the second law dictates that it dissipates over time, eventually transforming into the “random motion of slightly heated air molecules,” thereby becoming “warped,” to use Emerson’s expression, but more accurately, useless for the purposes of work.[12] Because the theme of the lecture is the exhaustless reserve of natural force at the disposal of human work in the modern world, this fact is nowhere to be found.

Limitless Modernity

For the purposes of this essay I am less interested in Emerson’s grasp of science, in whether he was ignorant of the principles of thermodynamics or simply cherry-picked those that best served his purpose, than in the relationship that his thought reveals between what I am calling energetic conservatism and historical liberalism. Even taking into account twentieth-century scientific advances that have complicated the worldview of classical thermodynamics, such as chaos theory or the study of dissipative structures, this relationship reveals a connection between radical cultural renewal and a disavowal of natural limitations, which, to my mind, raises some questions about modernity’s continued disavowal of such, now pressing, limitations. One such question is whether modernity’s “limitlessness” is essential to it as a cultural movement, or whether is it something largely accidental.

Scholars in the Energy Humanities, a branch of the burgeoning Environmental Humanities, have, following trends in New Materialism, begun to redefine modernity by linking it to the material revolution unleashed when fossil fuels became a global energy source. Limiting his analysis to America, Bob Johnson argues that “the nation’s modernity, including not only its hard material infrastructure but also its patterns of being, thinking, and feeling in the world can be traced back to this flood of prehistoric carbon.”[13] Here Dr. Johnson is referring to the “flood” of coal, natural gas, and oil that, starting in the nineteenth century, became the energetic substrate of the nation, affecting both “material infrastructure” and human patterns of “thinking,” “feeling,” and “being.” One of the changes in the latter dimension that Dr. Johnson identifies is based on what he calls a newfound “impression of limitlessness.”[14] He argues that this “impression” was especially strong for Americans due to the fact that fossil fuels became a viable energy source long before they experienced “the crunch of Malthus” on a nation-wide scale.[15] In other words, pre-carbon energy sources had not diminished in the new world to the extent to which they had in the old world, leaving many Americans untouched by the ecological constraints faced in places such as England and Europe. This, coupled with the seeming abundance of carbon-based energy sources such as coal and oil, created an “impression of limitlessness” which came to define the ways modern Americans thought, felt, and acted in the world. Thus, according to Dr. Johnson, the “impression of limitlessness” that defines the modern sensibility is solely the result of material conditions. What Emerson’s work suggests, however, is that modernity as a cultural formation defined by a radical break with history depends on an assumption about a limitless field of material-energetic resources that functions by denying an upper energetic limit to human and natural production over time. The earth and its human population are thereby conceived as parts in an ideal engine with the capability of perpetual work. It is precisely this that allows Emerson to say of the self-reliant individual that, “[t]he power which resides in him is new in nature.”[16] Modernity as a concept contains the idea of limitlessness. This is not at all to deny the importance of the material conditions Dr. Johnson identifies with modernity, but to point out that modern “limitlessness” is the result of those conditions working in tandem with certain human assumptions and beliefs, such as that famously expressed by Thomas Paine when he claimed that “[w]e have it in our power to begin the world over again.”[17]

Patrick Deneen argues that modernity “begins with a radical rejection of the past as a source of wisdom and counsel, of caution and limits.”[18] He identifies modern liberalism as a form of “anticulture” that is characterized by both “the wholesale conquest of nature” and “a new experience of time as a pastless present.”[19] One way to seemingly conquer nature is to deny the effects of time’s passage. In this way, the rejection of the past itself becomes a rejection of natural limits. Because there can be no pure nature or culture, but only what Dr. Latour describes as “imbroglios,” [20] to treat the present as some kind of Year Zero is not only to radically repudiate the cultural past, but also the natural processes in which it is embedded, the most fundamental of which is time. Dr. Deneen describes what this rejection of time amounts to when he describes how today’s mainstream culture turns humans into “mayflies” with no deeply felt connection to the past or future.[21] In Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015), Roy Scranton argues that in order to survive as a species we must “accept human limits and transience as fundamental truths, and work to nurture the variety and richness of our collective cultural heritage.”[22] It seems to me that we must also become aware of the relationship between these two things. For it is our collective heritage, both the good and the bad, that embeds us in time, allowing us to enter into harmony with its rhythms and limitations.

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[1] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature.” Emerson’s Prose and Poetry, ed. Joel Porte and Saundra Morris (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), 27.

[2] Dolan, Neal. Emerson’s Liberalism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009), 78.

[3] Marchant, James. Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters and Reminiscences, vol. 1, (London: Cassell and Company, 1916), 268.

[4] Allen, Gay Wilson. “A New Look at Emerson and Science.” Critical Essays On Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Robert E. Burkholder and Joel Myerson (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1983), 445.

[5] Lyell, Charles. Principles of Geology, Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth’s Surface, vol. 1, 2nd ed. (London: John Murray, Albemarle-Street, 1832), 189.

[6] Emerson, “Nature,” 27.

[7] “Heat of the Sun—Will in Ever Decay” in Scientific American 9, no. 10 (1853): 74.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Emerson. “Perpetual Forces.” The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 10: Lectures and Biographical Sketches (New York: AMS Press, 1968) 68.

[10] Ibid., 71.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Smil, Vaclav. Energy and Civilization: A History (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017), 8.

[13] Johnson, Bob. Carbon Nation: Fossil Fuels in the Making of American Culture (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2014), 4.

[14] Ibid., 13.

[15] Ibid., 9.

[16] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” Emerson’s Prose and Poetry, ed. Joel Porte and Saundra Morris (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), 121.

[17] Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. From The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, vol. 1, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: Citadel Press, 1945), 45.

[18] Deneen, Patrick. “Progress and Memory: Making Whole Our Historical Sense.” What I Saw in America. August 3, 2009.

[19] Deneen, Patrick. Why Liberalism Failed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018) 65-66.

[20] Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993), 2.

[21] Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, 74.

[22] Scranton, Roy. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2015), 24.

The featured image is an image of Ralph Waldo Emerson and is in the public domain. It has been adjusted for clarity and appears here, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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